Meet the Expert
May 08, 2023
Pop culture commonly depicts PhD students as high-strung, stressed, and even manic; in fact, that’s pretty much the premise of the popular webcomic “Piled Higher and Deeper” (AKA “PhD Comics”), a comic strip about life — or lack thereof — in academia. While that’s clearly an exaggeration, there’s some truth to the idea that PhD students’ physical and mental health can take a backseat during their studies, which can negatively impact quality of life and academic performance. In fact, a 2021 study of over 2,000 graduate students finds that physical and mental health neglect, particularly lack of sleep, can worsen academic performance and increase risk of burnout.
Stats may tell an ominous story, but the fact is: No degree should cost you your health, and you deserve to care for yourself during your PhD program. So how exactly do you keep up good health habits while pursuing a doctoral degree? Read on for tips about how to manage your physical and mental wellbeing during your PhD program.
Make Your Mental Health a Top Priority
Earning a PhD is a major accomplishment, but it can be a difficult, stressful process. Case in point: This 2021 study of British doctoral students found that over 40% of those surveyed met the criteria for anxiety and/or depression. It’s time to use the same drive you’re channeling to earn your degree to take control over your mental health.
What Optimal Mental Health Looks Like
Unlike heart rate, blood pressure, and other metrics for physical health, mental health can be hard to measure. But even though it’s hard to quantify, there’s a way to reach optimal mental health. This doesn’t mean you’re aspiring for the impossible, like being happy or relaxed every single minute. Instead, it’s a state of self-awareness that helps you meet the challenges of your PhD program and life in general.
Take a look at the following, which are signs you may be achieving optimal mental health:
- You prioritize self-care, and both sleep and the occasional disconnect are part of your repertoire.
- You know when to say “no” to a professional, academic, or social opportunity you don’t have time or energy for.
- You’re aware of your triggers, and you manage issues before they arise or they overwhelm you.
- You seek mental health help from a professional when needed — life happens, and even at optimal mental health, there’s no shame in getting help.
How to Improve Your Mental Health in Grad School
- Practice mindfulness: Worrying about the future? Agonizing over the past? Mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the practice of existing in the present and focusing only on the world in front of you.
- Make time for self-care and downtime: Everybody needs a break sometimes. Find a regular time to relax and do things you enjoy as a way of unwinding. This should happen daily and can be as simple as a short walk or cup of hot tea.
- Identify potential triggers: Mental health is personal. Different things stress out or upset different people — and this is doubly true if you have previous trauma. Taking some time to consider your personal triggers is the first step toward managing them.
- Create a strong support system: Whether it’s friends, family, classmates, or a combination, you should have people on your side. Building a network of people you trust and can turn to is critical when you’re facing a challenge.
- Strive to balance your time (as much as possible): While a few late nights of studying may be inevitable, try to craft a sustainable schedule. This means keeping studying, work, sleep, and a social life balanced, so you aren’t overwhelmed.
- Work on your self-confidence: Just by being accepted into a PhD program, you’ve already achieved something big. Remind yourself of this, and of all your accomplishments, to improve your self-confidence and avoid imposter syndrome.
- Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses: Nobody is perfect, and being honest with yourself about your personal positives and negatives can help you make better, more informed decisions. This can also help you identify areas of focus for the future.
- Get help if or when you need it: Everyone struggles. If you need help, the best thing you can do for yourself is to seek it from reliable sources. Turning to a professional when needed is a crucial part of taking care of yourself and your mental health.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense, Balanced Diet
While the idea of “brain foods” may sound like a myth, diet can be a critical factor in overall health and academic performance. Scientists at Harvard have compiled a list of foods that are especially good for the brain, including leafy greens, berries, and fatty fish like salmon.
Your goal — which will help with academic performance and your overall sense of wellbeing — is a balanced diet that’s rich in nutrients, including protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Avoiding the typical student diet here is key, particularly the highly processed convenience food that is often synonymous with student life.
The Benefits of Balanced Eating
A balanced diet can have positive impacts on practically every aspect of your health. Some benefits, like increased energy and improved focus throughout the day, are well known. But did you know eating a nutrient-rich diet can strengthen your immune system? This can be make-or-break if you’re avoiding a flu outbreak the week before your term paper is due.
Further, the benefits of a good diet last a lifetime. These can include lower risks of heart disease from a diet low in saturated fats, and lower risk of cancer from a diet rich in antioxidants. In addition, a balanced diet with a variety of foods is strongly correlated with longevity in general. And forming healthy eating habits during your PhD can help set you up for a lifetime of nutritious eating.
Simple Changes to Improve Your Diet
- Focus on nutrient density: Think of nutrient density as the “bang for your buck” of diet. Focus on foods that have fats, proteins, vitamins, or other nutrients you need, instead of simple sugars and salts alone.
- Eat a variety of foods (and colors!): Different foods provide different benefits. Try to get a varied diet, including many different fruits and vegetables. A colorful plate can be a sign of a good variety.
- Meal prep (so grabbing junk is less likely): Even busy students can eat healthy. Preparing a large amount of food that can be frozen in individual portions and quickly defrosted as part of a meal-prep plan means you can have healthy meals in a hurry.
- Get enough protein: While sugars and carbohydrates can give you a jolt of energy, protein keeps you feeling full and able to focus longer. Get plenty of protein from lean meats, fish, tofu, and legumes.
- Drink water (instead of soda or sweetened drinks): Sugary drinks are bad for your teeth and full of artificial sweeteners and empty calories that won’t fill you up. Instead, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated throughout the day.
- Eat healthy fats: Some people think fat is always bad for you, but that’s just not true. A balanced diet needs fats, preferably from healthy sources including fish, nuts, and even some fruits like avocado.
- Get enough Vitamin D & Omega 3s: These two nutrients are particularly important for healthy bones, heart health, and lower blood pressure. Ensure your diet has enough of them, using supplements like fish oil if needed.
- Eat enough fiber: Fiber is important for a healthy digestive system. You can make sure you’re eating enough through fiber-rich breakfast cereals and by eating plenty of raw fruits and vegetables.
Fit in Healthy Movement That You Enjoy
PhD studies, whether in the lab or the library, are often sedentary. It’s important to break up the computer time with some form of healthy movement — to release endorphins (those all-important happiness hormones) and help keep your heart, lungs, and muscles in shape.
Keep in mind: Exercise has both physical and mental health benefits. Once you find a form of exercise you like, it can be a means of relaxation, an outlet for self-care, and even a source of fun!
The Best Exercise is the Kind You Enjoy
When it comes to exercise, it’s important to consider basic human nature: Humans like to have fun, so a fun exercise routine is one you’re more likely to stick with. Some forms of exercise that can be done regularly and are fun and relaxing range from long walks in the park listening to your favorite music or podcast, to dance classes and music-based workout routines like Zumba, to martial arts and team sports like soccer or basketball, to activities like rock climbing and mountain hikes.
Which form of exercise you enjoy most and have time for in your schedule is up to you — use trial and error to see what brings you joy. You might even find something unique and local to you, like a circus gymnastics class or other unusual fitness option, that suits your purposes and brings a smile to your face as well as benefits to your health.
Finding Time to Move More
Fitting exercise into your schedule can be tough when you have a lot to juggle. But making it a priority is important for optimal health. Here are some ways to integrate exercise and daily movement into your everyday routine:
- Fitting it in as part of your daily commute by walking or biking to work: Not only will walking or biking to work and/or school get you moving every day, but it can also be a great way to save money by cutting down on gasoline or public transportation costs.
- Taking a walk around campus on your lunch break (recent studies suggest that taking multiple short walks daily may be better for you than one long one): Get outside and make it a goal to visit a different part of campus every day. You’ll get a mini break for exercise and learn more about your school.
- Take the stairs when possible: Most gyms have fancy stair-climbing machines, but you can also get in that exercise the old-school way by taking the stairs, when possible, anywhere you go.
- If you work at a desk, make time to stand and stretch periodically: Stand up, stretch your arms and neck, and pace a little if you can. This gets the blood flowing and keeps you from getting stiff or sore.
- If you have the option to stand instead of sit, do it: This can be on the subway or at home watching TV. Standing still is more exercise than sitting, and taking the chance to stand when you can is good for you.
- Keep a yoga mat somewhere accessible and stretch or do yoga during breaks: Yoga poses and other stretches can help you relax and prevent sore muscles. A quick stretch break while you work can pay dividends over a long day.
- Choose leisure activities that keep you moving: When you have a day or even an afternoon off, use it to get moving. This can be a stroll through town or a day at the beach, as long as you’re stretching your legs and moving around.
- Buy your groceries in-store instead of getting them delivered: Not only is this a great chance to put your balanced eating plan into action, but also walking the grocery aisles and carrying your purchases from the store is an easy way to move after a day at your desk.
Sleep is Non-Negotiable: Get 7-9 Hours Per Night
Pulling an all-nighter may seem like a tempting option to cram for a test or write a paper, but getting enough sleep every night is vital. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of health problems — from obesity and depression to hypertension and stroke. You’ll be in your PhD program for several years, so the best time to form healthy sleep habits is now.
The Importance of Enough Quality Sleep
Everyone can relate to feeling cranky after a restless night. But getting enough quality sleep doesn’t just lead to a better mood; it’s also vital to your overall health. Getting healthy sleep rests your circulatory system, your metabolism, and your mind. Sleep is also crucial to a healthy memory, which is essential when you’re a PhD student.
Unfortunately, most people don’t have optimal sleep habits. According to CDC data from 2021, roughly one-third of American adults are getting fewer than seven hours of sleep per night, which is insufficient for a healthy adult. Getting your sleep schedule and sleep habits in order during your doctoral studies can help you develop sleep habits that will keep you well-rested through graduation and beyond.
Sleep Habits to Start Today
Getting good sleep can be tough when you have a lot going on. But making this a priority is important for optimal health. Here are some ways to improve your sleep that you can start right now:
- Be consistent — stick to a similar sleep schedule every day: Your body gets used to certain sleeping patterns, and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule can help you fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.
- Create bedtime rituals that help you wind down: It’s difficult to transition from a busy day directly to sleep. Instead, find ways to relax before going to bed, like listening to calming music, reading a novel, or watching a relaxing TV show.
- Avoid blue light from screens in the two hours before bedtime: Blue light can make your body think it’s earlier in the day than it actually is. If you have trouble falling asleep at night, try to avoid scrolling through your phone or using other devices in the few hours before bed.
- Create a comfy and restful sleep space: An environment that makes you feel relaxed is a space you’ll feel comfortable sleeping in. Make sure your bedroom is a cozy space for you, and that you have a comfortable bed, linens, and blankets.
- Limit caffeine intake, alcohol, and large meals within 2-3 hours before bed: Caffeine and alcohol can make you restless — especially in large quantities — while a heavy meal can make lying down uncomfortable. Wind down eating and drinking a few hours before bed.
- Get regular exercise: Not only will the endorphins and hormones produced from exercise help your long-term sleep health, but also a good workout can tire your body physically, helping you get to sleep quickly.
- Eat healthy: Sugary snacks and greasy foods can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and stomach. A healthy diet, on the other hand, regulates your system and makes for a restful night’s sleep.
- Avoid long naps: A quick nap can be refreshing, but try not to nap for too long. A long midday nap can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Manage Your Stress in Healthy Ways
Over the course of your PhD, it’s inevitable that you’ll go through some stressful times. In a way, a little stress is a good thing: It’s a sign that you’re motivated and care about the work you’re doing. However, too much stress can lead to burnout and be physically draining on your body. In fact, a 2021 study of PhD students in medicine found that more than half of students surveyed exhibited moderate to high risk of burnout. Dealing well with stress is crucial to your PhD success and your overall health.
The Impact of Chronic Stress
Stress is never fun, but chronic stress can have health consequences and potentially be harmful to your academic performance. According to the American Psychological Association, stress impacts every part of the body, from the brain and respiratory system to the bowels and reproductive organs. The Mayo Clinic has found that chronic stress increases the risk of heart disease and other serious ailments.
What’s more, PhD students are at particularly high risk of experiencing stress-related issues. A 2019 survey of British graduate students found that over 80% of those surveyed had high levels of anxiety and stress — an overwhelming majority. This is despite the fact that over 80% of those surveyed had positive feelings about their PhD program. Therefore, to get the most out of your doctoral education, you may want to consider adopting a solid stress-management strategy.
How to Manage Your Stress
- Exercise for health and stress-relief benefits:Exercise releases endorphins, which can improve your mood and help relieve stress. Beyond that, having something to focus on and channel your energy into can take your mind off stress.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep is associated with anxiety and tension, even without external stressors. Be sure to get enough sleep to avoid exacerbating stress through exhaustion.
- Lean on your support system: Feeling stressed? Don’t go through it alone. Reach out to friends and family to share your burdens, or even just take advantage of a friendly chat.
- Eat well and avoid over-using substances like alcohol or stimulants: Physical health and mental health are two parts of one whole, and they impact each other. A healthy diet and avoiding excessive substance use keeps you calm and balanced in times of stress.
- Practice mindfulness or meditation: These stress-reducing exercises can help center you and keep you from catastrophizing.
- Take breaks: Too much work without a break can overwhelm and exhaust you. Consider the Pomodoro Technique: 25-minute bursts followed by 5-minute breaks.
- Balance your schedule and be realistic about how much you can do: The best way to avoid feeling overwhelmed is to avoid overburdening yourself. Set realistic goals, and don’t take on more than you can realistically manage.
- Seek help if you need it: You can only do so much by yourself. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, connect with a professional counselor or therapist, who will know how to help.
Final Note: Work-Life Balance is Essential
While a good diet and enough sleep are important, in order to manage your stress effectively, it’s important to recognize that these are only parts of the greater whole. And to bring equilibrium to that greater whole means seeking your optimal work-life balance. Staying healthy during your PhD means mastering the fine art of time management to stay on top of your schoolwork while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The right balance looks different for everyone, and it may take some experimentation to find your solid footing. You’ll need to factor in your personal circumstances, including the demands of your PhD, personal commitments, your hobbies and social life, and how much time it takes you to meal prep, exercise, etc. However, once you’ve struck that balance, if you take care to maintain it, you’ll be in good shape to complete your PhD in good health.
Health and Wellness Resources for PhD Students
Figuring out and maintaining a healthy routine and lifestyle during your PhD can be a challenge. If you try to do it all on your own, you may get overwhelmed or discouraged. Luckily, you’re not alone. There are a wide variety of resources out there to help you stay healthy while you study, from blogs with tips to maintaining a balanced diet to apps that ensure you’re moving every day. Here are a few to get you started:
- “Being Well in Academia: Ways to Feel Stronger, Safer, and More Connected” – Targeted at both students and faculty, this book explores systemic stressors in academia, and how individuals can keep themselves healthy while addressing them.
- Calm – A highly popular relaxation and wellbeing app, Calm has programs to reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and more.
- Dinnerly – For meal prep on a student-friendly budget, Dinnerly offers tasty and fresh meal-prep kits starting at under $5 per meal.
- Grad Girl Wellness – Designed to inspire women of color, this podcast focuses on health and wellness from a grad student perspective.
- Grokker – This free app offers a holistic approach to health and wellness. In addition to yoga routines, Grokker features mindfulness meditation, healthy recipes, and more.
- Hatch – A good night’s sleep? There’s an app for that! Hatch features calming music, noise blockers, sleep trackers, and more to ensure good sleep hygiene.
- Hello Fresh – One of the most well-known meal-prep services, Hello Fresh’s focus on fresh ingredients is a great way to maintain a balanced diet.
- Insight Timer – This free app offers thousands of guided meditations and mindfulness exercises (some with celebrity coaches) to help you relax when you need it.
- “Managing Your Mental Health During Your PhD: A Survival Guide” – Author Zoë Ayres, who holds a PhD in electrochemical sensor development, covers the ins and outs of mental health specifically geared towards doctoral students.
- Mindfulness Coach – This app was created by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to encourage veterans, service members, and others to practice mindfulness and stress-management techniques.
- Sleep Cycle – Part alarm, part fitness tracker, Sleep Cycle is an easy-to-use way to track your sleep habits and ensure a consistent sleep schedule.
- Talkspace – Looking for a therapist? Talkspace is a popular online talk therapy site with a variety of options and comprehensive screening for clients and therapists.
- The Wellbeing Thesis – This UK-based website is designed to promote grad student wellbeing, designed by university faculty.
- “Wellbeing in Higher Education” – With multiple academics as authors, this book uses research to show how to improve student and faculty health and wellness in higher education.
- Yoga for Beginners Mind + Body – Interested in de-stressing? This free app introduces beginners to yoga, a fun and relaxing way to exercise.
Interview with a Health & Wellness Expert
To provide more insight into the importance of health and wellness, we spoke with Mary Walker, PhD, who recently completed her postdoc in medical sciences at Harvard University. Dr. Walker has first-hand knowledge of the health consequences that can result from stress during your doctoral program. Here’s what she had to say about maintaining good health as you earn your doctorate.
What are some strategies to prevent burnout and maintain motivation during a long-term academic pursuit like a PhD?
Burnout is a real thing. Plenty of grad students end up here. Even if it’s very subtle, it needs attending to, so it’s important to know the symptoms of it. And it’s key that you ask yourself honestly at least every two weeks if you’re experiencing any symptoms. Your productivity holds more information than you think: You see your productivity sliding, and so does your supervisor? It might be burnout. You’ve got to make sure you have a good work-life balance from the start of your program. If you’re feeling guilty on a weekend/late evenings for not hitting the books, then burnout will appear more easily. Guilt is something a toxic system uses to get the most out of you, so if you find your supervisor or colleagues making you feel guilty for taking a deserved vacation, then you really need to reassess your relationship with them. In terms of motivation, I’ve found everyone goes through their highs and lows. For me (quite generically), it helps to break down monstrous tasks into little sections. Yes, this takes time, but it’s worth it.
What are some resources or support networks available to PhD students to help with maintaining optimal health and wellness?
Support networks are important as a PhD student, but it’s hard to find the right one. My suggestion would be to diversify your friendship groups. I did my PhD in a biological science lab, so I had peers that I saw day to day. Thankfully we’re great friends, and they’re fantastic support through long experiments and while thesis writing. However, some folks aren’t as lucky and become very lonely during their programs. I’d suggest finding people doing similar programs so you can at least rant together! Friends are great support systems, but if you need further support, then universities have counseling infrastructure. It’s also worth joining a hiking club, as nature has a wonderful way of grounding you during the hardest of times.
How can I manage my time effectively to balance academic responsibilities with self-care and social activities?
I think I covered some aspects of this in Q1, but you need to learn really early on how to balance your working time and not feel guilty in evenings or weekends. This relies on you setting yourself achievable daily or weekly goals, while honestly and openly communicating with your supervisor. If they ask for something unrealistic, don’t break your back trying to achieve this when you know you can’t. Instead, you can have a conversation with them to negotiate. This does also mean that you need to learn to communicate well and negotiate early on.
What are some mindfulness or meditation techniques that can help improve mental health and focus during a PhD program?
I’m not the best at mindfulness, but I found the app Headspace useful for focusing when I felt distracted. I just swear by a good sleeping pattern, and it helps loads. Don’t be one of those people who only sleeps four hours a night — it really hurts your long-term health.
What are some practical tips for maintaining a healthy work-life balance while pursuing a PhD?
Get into the swing of a 9-5 working job before starting your PhD, preferably one of those where you don’t bring any responsibilities home. You’ll learn to forget about work when you’re home. Also, prioritize well: If you’ve got tons to do one afternoon, figure out which tasks are critical and do them first. You’ll find deadlines are negotiable…mostly. But honestly, you should’ve allocated your time better early on. Finally, get yourself a good PhD support group.
How can I manage stress and anxiety while working on my PhD, and what are some effective coping strategies?
Stress and anxiety are hard to cover as each person has their own trigger. It’s good to take a few moments to understand your feelings and the reason behind them, to help you address them or prevent them from appearing. You should be seeking friends who tell you something’s off before you even realize it, and maybe you can even have a therapist as a preventative measure. Being in touch with your mind and feelings is super important.
What are some strategies to balance the demands of a PhD program with maintaining a healthy lifestyle?
My main thing is that you should treat your PhD like a 9-5 job. I know some PhDs just aren’t like that, but try as best you can to have a routine like that to prevent the feeling of guilt when you’re having a break. You could be hiking over the weekend, but if you’re still working on your paper, then it’s not a break. Same with vacation time: You’ve earned it, so don’t ruin your vacation by addressing or even thinking about reviewers’ comments the entire time. Don’t even check your emails!
What are some common health risks associated with PhD programs, and how can they be mitigated or prevented?
I’m mostly familiar with anxiety, burnout, and imposter syndrome. But your physical health can take a toll, too. Stress can lead to overeating, inflammatory disorders… But yeah, the mental health risks are the biggest. It’s rare to come out with a PhD and without the scars, though all the steps mentioned above should help. Also, pick a reasonable supervisor when you’re looking. Big names have less time for you, but small names are looking to build a reputation, so be wise.